Tag Archive for: diversity

Most of us are familiar with the idea of a bell curve.  If you grew up with public education in the US in the 1970s, you were likely steeped in it.  The idea is fairly simple:

First, numeric scores are assigned to the students. The actual values are unimportant as long as the ordering of the scores corresponds to the ordering of how good the students are. In the second step these scores are converted to percentiles. Finally, the percentile values are transformed to grades according to a division of the percentile scale into intervals, where the interval width of each grade indicates the desired relative frequency for that grade.

For example, if there are three grades, A, B and C, where A is reserved for the top 10% of students, B for the next 20%, and C for the remaining 70%, then scores in the percentile interval from 0% to 70% get grade C, scores from 71% to 90% get grade B, and scores from 91% to 100% get grade A.”

Okay, that’s how we got our ‘letter grades.’ What I find particularly interesting about this method is the following statement – also from Wikipedia.

“The grading method can thus be tuned to determine the frequency distribution of the grades in advance, and if the intervals are already fixed at the beginning of a course, then so is the number of students who will receive each grade.”

Regardless of how you feel about the format of “grading on a curve,” it occurs to me that as a culture, we have bought into this notion and applied it to nearly everything.  We use the idea that most of us are going to be clustered into the center portion of the curve, sheltered under its wide arc, with only the outliers spread out to either side, to make sense of our world. We live our lives aspiring to be, if not to the far right side of that graph, at least safe within the numbers of other ‘normal’ folks like us in the main part.

And it’s no wonder, because those unlucky folks at either end of the spectrum are often the ones who are dehumanized.

Consider a bell curve based on sporting ability.  The folks at the far right – the positive 2.5s and 3s – those are Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, Mia Hamm. They are the ones we revere and admire and pay bucketloads of money to go see in action, but they are also relegated to that world of superhuman ability that makes them subject to expectations nobody can meet.  We idolize them and dehumanize them. We ask that they subjugate their humanity, their tendency to make mistakes and their desires for junk food and bad relationships, in order to explain to ourselves why they aren’t in the same part of the bell curve as us.  And if they fall for any reason at all and show their flaws and foibles, we vilify them viciously before either ignoring them or dusting them off and placing them right back on that pedestal where we want them to be.

We have graphs for every kind of achievement and quality – musical talent, scientific thought, physical attributes – and we hold exacting standards for each of them. Talented musicians are prodigies whose lives are wasted if they deign to seek anything other than a life of fame and fortune by making music. Gorgeous models and actors are lauded for maintaining their ideal weight and if one should suffer some disfiguring accident we assume their life is now over.

And if we all adhered to our places on the bell curve, where might we be?  There would be no Temple Grandin, for she would be relegated to the negative twos with other folks whose talents don’t fit in with our idea of ‘normal.’ The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks would never have materialized, given their place on the bell curve of gender and race.  It is so often those individuals who are willing to step outside of the interval that society has fixed in place for them who make the biggest impact, who believe that we have something important to learn, but they suffer greatly at the hands of those who would define them as less human simply because of that place they are supposed to occupy on the graph.  We are, so many of us, concerned with having what is average, what is normal, with sitting firmly in the middle of an entire group of others just like us, that we forget to dream. We accept the idea that the game is fixed, the intervals are set, and we have little mobility to the right or to the left. We know, from working out the statistics of the bell curve, that once you reach a certain point, it is simply too hard to break through to the top part of the curve.

It hasn’t always been this way. Our country used to be one that fairly demanded difference. There was a time when our shores were flooded with immigrants that were welcomed and, although they didn’t always have what they needed to get by, collaboration and innovation were praised, not to mention a survival necessity. That’s not to say that there aren’t shameful examples of exploitation and discrimination in our history, but there wasn’t always this idea that being just like everyone else was something to aspire to.  In the 1950s when television programs began showing us what we should want, we stopped asking ourselves what we actually did want and found it was simpler to go along with the crowd. Unfortunately, that has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy for many Americans who would rather blend into the sheer numbers of others like themselves than celebrate their own unique attributes and talents. It has also made it much easier to dehumanize individuals at both ends of the spectrum, pitying those on one end of the curve and holding those at the opposite end to an impossible standard. We huddle in our “normalcy,” afraid to bust out at either side and show our true desires and talents, content to paint ourselves in the colors of the masses and regard those remarkable individuals who stand out like exotic creatures at the zoo.  A dynamic, diverse society is one that allows for difference and celebrates every kind of unique thought, not one that is frightened of new frontiers and innovation. Let’s scrap this bell curve and start looking at our world through fresh eyes.

Moving to the city has been a form of insulation-removal for us.  It occurred to me this morning as I walked the dog through our new neighborhood, as has become our morning ritual, that I have lived in the suburbs my entire life.  Or, if not technically in the suburbs, in a small enough town that I had no idea what living in the city would be like.  And Bubba, well he was born and raised in the same house on a few hundred acres bordering a wide river with nothing but cattle and sugar beets for neighbors.

Our new house, while spacious and definitely in a residential neighborhood, is not insulated.  I don’t mean it lacks that fluffy pink fiber stuffed in to the walls and attic. I mean that if we leave the back doors open on a sunny afternoon we have to be careful not to crank the music too high because the neighbors might be having dinner on their patio next door.  I mean that four doors down is an old Victorian that has been converted into four apartments and across the street is a 60-something Caucasian woman who is ragged raising her daughter’s two half-black sons by herself. I mean that our front lawn is seen by dozens of people each day, some strolling by slowly with dogs of all sizes and others rushing to catch a bus a few blocks south, ears sprouting speakers or bluetooth devices.

In every other house I have inhabited, the front lawn might be a playspace for children or pets, but mostly it served as a buffer. A way to set the house back from the street and give us some space. Some insulation. On our quiet cul-de-sac, nobody ever saw our front lawn except the neighbors.

In the suburbs the grocery stores were not walking distance away and so each had spacious parking lots, landscaped with trees and shrubs and, in some cases, herbs and other edibles.  Each car had its own ample space. A separation from the others.  Here in town if there is a parking lot at the store it is nominal with no room for plants beyond the occasional weed poking up through a crack.

Since we moved I have noticed more. More people close by. More noises. More light. More life.  At times I have found myself uncomfortable with the lack of insulation as though I’m sitting outside on a cool evening in just a tank top. The activity around me, the closeness of others not just like me – they act as a cold breeze raising goosebumps on my arms.  This heightened awareness is disconcerting but electric all the same.  I feel more aware. More exposed. More available to everything.

For most of my life I have been able to surround myself with open space and a cushion of comfort. Our previous neighborhoods were quiet and serene. If we wanted action we could go find it. If we visited the city for a day to attend a cultural event we could come right back home and lament the sad spectacle of dirty streets and panhandlers and crowds in the cocoon of our home.  We could remove ourselves.  Insulate ourselves.

In our new house we certainly are able to come inside and close the doors, retreat to the basement and watch TV in peace if we so choose.  I can curl up on the couch with a book and delve in to a different world.  But the buffer around us has been pared down.  Our neighbors are closer and more diverse than anywhere I’ve ever lived.  It took the dog a few weeks to figure out that every car or truck that came down the street was not stopping at our house. He barked excitedly at the door every time someone walked by on the sidewalk or drove past the backyard through the alley, certain they were coming to visit us.  I know how he feels.

And yet, I am so grateful for this shift in my life.  The opportunity to take a step closer to life in the city is keeping me on edge in a good way.  In the past I was able to convince myself that distance was normal. That I could retreat from my surroundings with a wide cushion around me and venture out on my own terms. The suburbs gave me the impression that control was possible. No massive tree roots were allowed to push their way up, tenting sidewalks to dangerous heights.  You could always tell what day the garbage pick-up happened because house after house sported the green and blue plastic bins at the end of the driveway. Neighborhoods with single-family homes sat apart from those with condominiums and apartments.  Here in the city our mantra has become, “Watch your step” as we take a family walk with the dog. When I asked the former owners what day garbage and recycle service came they looked blank despite having lived here for five years. The trash bins simply live in the alley behind the house where the massive trucks rumble through once a week or so. There are renters and ‘owners’ alike in our neighborhood in the city and many homes with multiple generations living within.

While it remains true that I dip a toe in the water only when I choose, the world is closer now and, for me, that is a reminder that life is meant to be tasted and experienced.  That the bright colors and sharp noises of the city represent a brighter mosaic that I have decided to be more fully a part of.  The chaos and disorder of old next to new, wild bumping right up against sculpted, tribal music in the park as I lie quietly reading on a blanket gives me a new sense of imbalance that feels a little alarming. A little sensory-overload. A little like a really good scalp massage that takes me by surprise and sends shivers down my back but wakes me up and leaves me wanting more.

At Eve’s school, they have Culmination ceremonies instead of mid-terms or finals. The purpose of these gatherings is to demonstrate their proficiency with the material they have been studying to their peers, teachers, and families. The school very much has a “stand and deliver” philosophy that encourages the girls to truly achieve mastery of each subject and understand it in a way that they can then teach it. The point is to ensure that they aren’t simply cramming their heads full of facts that will promptly be forgotten once they lay their pencils down.

Last night, we went to the second such ceremony and, just as I was the first time, I was struck speechless. The theme last night was “Literary Salon.” The girls have been studying fairy tales, both modern and ancient, and their impact on culture and were tasked to create their own books, complete with illustrations. In addition, they have been talking about personal identity and were asked to create what Eve’s teacher calls a “river” poem, honoring many of the tributaries that flow into them to make each girl a whole. Finally, they have been studying music (guitar, keyboards, singing, and music theory) individually and as a group. The girls performed in groups, recited their poems individually, and read their stories aloud to the family and friends gathered in the room. Not only were they asked to memorize poems and music, they were asked to find their voices and their courage to speak publicly and showcase their talents and creativity.
The grand finale came as each and every girl in the class sat down with her guitar and they played and sang “Lean On Me.”

“Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow.
But if we are wise
We know that there’s
Always tomorrow.

Lean on me
When you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend.
I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on.
Please swallow your pride
If I have things
You need to borrow.
For no one can fill
Those of your needs
That you don’t let show.

Lean on me
When you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend.
I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on.

If there’s a load
You have to bear
That you can’t carry
I’m right up the road
I’ll share your load
If you just call me.
So just call on me, sister
When you need a hand.
We all need somebody to lean on.
I just might have a problem
That you’d understand.
We all need somebody to lean on.”

I was absolutely (to the intense mortification of Bubba and Lola) brought to tears. These girls, each of them so different, were really singing this song to each other. There are girls who come from broken homes, lesbian homes, girls being raised by extended family, African American girls, girls from Cambodia and those of Latina descent. There are girls on scholarship, a girl whose father was recently killed in Afghanistan, girls with learning disabilities and one who is repeating fifth grade. There is a girl adopted from China, another who has never met her birth father, and others who wish they hadn’t. There are girls who are proficient in mathematics and others who are great with music or art. There is a girl with a debilitating anxiety disorder and one whose mother recently battled breast cancer. These girls know all of these things and more about each other and yet they banded together when everyone was cleaning up last night after Culmination to ask their teacher to let them perform an impromptu song for us all. They have spent evenings together camping on the beach in the cold, wet Pacific Northwest, cooking meals together and pitching tents and holding each others’ hands and heads as they got seasick on a boat. Despite their differences, they are united in their accomplishments as young women of passion and humor, ideas and love for life that literally brought me to my knees. This is not a group that is concerned with gossip or fashion, boys or competition for the spotlight. This is a group of young women who are well on their way to finding out who they are as individuals and recognizing their strengths as a group. And I, for one, am honored to be a spectator of it all.